Government ignored its own pre-pandemic prison advice

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new data analysis demonstrates that UK prisons were fighting a rising tide of infectious outbreaks before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reports Eleanor Rose, Liberty Investigates journalist.


The Government disregarded its own recommendation for handling the release of prisoners in the case of a pandemic emergency, Liberty Investigates has learned as the row over delays to free low-risk inmates deepens.

The vulnerabilities to pandemics of the UK’s overcrowded jails – in which public health experts have warned 800 could die – were exposed during the Government’s 2016 flu pandemic simulation Exercise Cygnus, a former government official revealed.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) crafted and approved a proposal in response to the Cygnus findings, before the coronavirus crisis struck, allowing for the flexible release of low-risk prisoners with the power to recall them if needed in the case of a pandemic.

15,000 inmates need to be freed to relieve overcrowding and avoid preventable deaths from coronavirus.

The plan would have guided officials to adapt to circumstances, said the source, without giving a specific number to be released. The Prison Governors Association (PGA) has warned that 15,000 of about 83,000 inmates would need to be freed to relieve overcrowding and avoid preventable deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Yet March’s Coronavirus Act did not include a clause to enable the plan. Although the Government can still use other powers such as release on temporary licence (ROTL) and compassionate release, its attempt to date has been deemed so ineffective that two prisoner welfare charities are now threatening to sue the Government.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland’s response to the coronavirus crisis, including a scheme to tag and release up to 4,000 low-risk inmates using ROTL provisions, has been branded “wholly inadequate” by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust (PRT).

Buckland told the Justice Committee, a House of Commons Select Committee to scrutinise the work of the MoJ including prisons, that the tag-and-release programme was created with the need in mind to balance a safe prison estate against the safety of the public. However, the PGA has warned that its “stringent guidelines”– applying only to those within two months of their release date, subject to a risk assessment – would cause delays.

As of 14 April, only 18 inmates had been released

The scheme was announced on 4 April, but as of 14 April, only 18 inmates had been released and the scheme was suspended on April 17 after six ineligible prisoners were released in error. It is due to resume this week.

The Howard League and PRT together issued a legal letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland on 17 April, alleging his action has been “too slow” to prevent a “public health catastrophe”. The letter is a first step towards applying for judicial review of the current response.

The letter said “the rate of releases has been too slow and too limited to make any substantial difference to the prison population and the plans as we understand them are incapable of achieving what the secretary of state has publicly acknowledged is required”.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Everything good about government action in tackling this emergency has been characterised by being early and decisive. On prisons, by contrast, it is a story of too little, too late.

“The scientific and operational advice couldn’t be clearer – if ministers are serious about following it, they must go much further, and do it now.”


The developments come as Liberty Investigates reveals new data analysis, which demonstrates that UK prisons were already fighting to contain a rising tide of infectious outbreaks before the current COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Prison authorities struggling with chronic underfunding and overcrowding saw the number of outbreaks of infectious disease double between 2015 and 2019 from 20 per year to more than 40.

The surge came amid a £900 million backlog in prison maintenance work and the failed privatisation of swathes of the everyday caretaking work that keeps prisons clean.

Influenza emerged as a growing threat to prisoners and staff, striking more than 600 prisoners and staff between April 2017 and March 2019, hospitalising more than 20 and killing one person, prompting an urgent response from Public Health England (PHE).

Flu was the highest-ranking cause of outbreaks in the year from April 2017 to March 2018. In that year alone there were 21 flu outbreaks impacting an average of 24.3 people each. They saw 412 detainees and 89 staff symptomatic or confirmed with flu, of whom 11 prisoners and one staff member were hospitalised.

A PHE report said at the time that the surge in cases “required formal multi-agency outbreak control team response to oversee complex operational, infection control and clinical management issues.”


Prisons will be “breeding grounds” with major public health implications following years of overcrowding and neglect.

In the year from April 2018 to March 2019, the number of cases per outbreak had fallen to 10.6 on average – but cases were said by PHE to have been more serious. Of those who caught flu across the prisons and smaller immigration detention estate, 7.1 per cent were hospitalised in 2018 to 19 versus 2.6 per cent the previous year, and one person died.

Since the emergence of the new coronavirus strain, prison experts have warned that prisons will be “breeding grounds” with major public health implications following years of overcrowding and neglect.

A Liberty Investigates review of prison inspection reports found that a quarter of jails visited by the independent inspections body, HMI Prisons, from April 2018 to March 2019, failed to achieve basic infection control standards, with more than a quarter (ten out of 38) facilities in breach of requirements.

Inspections in the past year found filthy conditions in the wing treatment rooms of several more prisons, while in HMP Buckley Hall the inspector found out-of-date hand gels in a “dirty and dusty” healthcare screening room with no hand-washing facilities.

The Justice Committee raised concerns in October 2019 about a backlog in £900 million worth of maintenance work to facilities. Most of this backlog has not been cleared.

Meanwhile, the prison estate was also hit by the unsuccessful privatisation of the everyday caretaking works of 42 prisons to the firm Carillion, which failed to meet its contractual obligations, according to the state-owned firm that took over its contracts when Carillion went bust.

Conditions produce a “rich cocktail” of risk in a prison system housing a high population of older people and those with underlying health conditions, according to Andy Slaughter, Labour MP and member of the Justice Committee.

“The particular vulnerability of the prison service is of underinvestment along with the combination of overcrowding, low staffing levels, and general poor conditions regarding public health that we have been complaining about for the last ten years, is really thrown into relief by this exceptional pandemic situation,” he said, in an interview with Liberty Investigates.

So far, at least 255 prisoners in 62 jails have tested positive for Coronavirus, with 13 suspected COVID-19 related deaths. Three prison staff have died.

Medical experts from University College London meanwhile warned in the Guardian of 800 preventable deaths within the prison estate if urgent action is not taken.


Amid the row over prisoner releases, family members told LI that prisoners are suffering a huge burden on their mental health. “They are all afraid,” said the mother of a 28-year-old prisoner at HMP Spring Hill, a D-Category prison, where coronavirus is already present.

The woman, who asked not to be named, said her son had seen prison officers without any gloves or masks, while the atmosphere was souring fast. “He rang last night and said he is living off cold porridge as they aren’t getting hot food. Cleanliness is a huge issue – he’s a clean freak at the best of times. He has soap, but no anti-bac [anti-bacterial sanitiser] – none of them do.

“Shared toilet and showers, ‘idiot’ prisoners coughing and spluttering on purpose and very few complying with two-metre distance – which is virtually impossible in there anyway. He said it’s very tense,” she added.

"He cries every time he calls."

Another woman, 26, fears for her partner who has only a few weeks left of a two-year sentence for a non-violent crime. He has asthma and told her he’s been seven days without a shower. “He cries every time he calls. My partner isn’t a violent person at all – his risk assessment was very good,” she said. Several people on his wing have coronavirus, he reported.

Liberty Investigates put its findings to MoJ and asked for comment. A Prison Service spokesperson said: “We have robust and flexible plans in place to keep prisoners, staff and the wider public safe based on the latest advice from Public Health England.

“Personal protective equipment is being provided to officers and all prisons have the soap and cleaning materials they need.”